Laura McHugh is a visual artist and engineer. She has a short story that was included in
I Thought My Father Was God And Other True Tales from NPR's National Story Project, an
anthology edited by Paul Auster and published by MacMillan two days after the 9/11 tragedies.
She lives in Half Moon Bay, California near her four children and two delightful grandchildren.
Prompt Option #10
When he or she opens the fortune cookie he or she finds a small map inside.
Death by a Thousand Cuts
By Laura McHugh
The sign on Rudyís donut shop said, "Closed due to family emergency."
"Shit." Jack was already late for the meeting uptown. Now he would have to go to the All-Star in the opposite direction. That was
going to add seven minutes, making him uncomfortably late. Late, as in uneasily walking-into-a well-underway meeting-holding-a-big-pink
He took a left on West 47th Street, and pushed his hands deeper down into his wool jacket pockets. Heíd left his gloves at home in a
hurry to get to the meeting. The lights on the All Star Donut Shop marquis were blinking, a good sign. Jack exhaled when he got inside
the grimy door; relieved that there were at least two dozen doughnuts left on the stainless steel racks in the glass case. At this point,
he didnít care what kind.
Waving his hand at the case he told the cashier "Just put all those in a box. Iím kinda inna hurry. Make sure you include the maple bar."
Another downside to All Star was they didnít know his regular order Ė six glazed plain, three chocolate cake, one maple bar (for him), and
two apple fritters. He threw a ten down on the counter, grabbed the box out of the cashierís hands and ran. He had four minutes to get ten
blocks uptown. Definitely going to be late.
The wind between the buildings made Jack feel like he was running uphill, even though the street was perfectly level. He remembered it was
howling outside before he left for the meeting, but he didnít think to grab his scarf, or his gloves.
"Start saying it Jack Ė repeat and repeat: Hi, my name is Jack. Iím an alcoholic. Again. Take the sting out of it before you are in the
room. My name is Jack and Iím an alcoholic."
He had seen Eileen in his dreams over and over for the past three weeks. In the dreams she was always floating on a small invisible cloud
with a soft white-yellow glow just above her bare shoulders. Their dreamy encounters always took his breath away. Now the chair to
Eileenís immediate right was the only one open as he came into the room. Jack set his pink box down quietly on the table and took the
seat. Still panting, he was pacing back and forth, in his head, trying to find his center and get grounded. Rudy stopped sharing and
everyone looked at Jack when he took his seat. Ruthie, tonightís facilitator, was a small middle-aged woman with an explosion of black
ringlets pinned with a hot pink glittery bow, as though Ruthie was four, not forty.
Ruthie looked at Jack with the same petulant look you might get from the four-year-old. Holding his breath, he said, "My name is Jack and
Iím an alcoholic."
"Hello, Jack." Then that silence.
Jack sat, motionless, and heard that little voice in his head reminding him, "Breathe, in, and out. Again. One more time."
He started, slowly. "Itís been thirty-five days since my last drink." He thought he heard Eileen gasp. The trickle of air back into her
mouth was barely audible. He felt it more than heard it.
"I went to the CVS last night to buy Velcro and got lost in the back of the store. The path to the register led me through an aisle
with the cold beer cases on the left and stacked cardboard cubes of wine on the right."
Boxed wine, however cheap, always left him with a pounding red-wine headache. Jack preferred Bombay Sapphire gin, bank account allowing.
"I bought the Velcro and got myself home to a cup of strong coffee." Everyone applauded politely.
He couldnít stop panting. In his ears, his breathing was so loud. Georgie, Kelly, Cindy Z, and Cindy A shared or read from the Big Book,
and no one seemed to see that he was gulping down handfuls of air. Eileen was riveted to what each person was sharing and didnít seem to
notice his discomfort.
Then, as soon as it had started, everyone stood up. The black card table in the corner of the room by the wooden stairs that led to the
dark basement was full of treats: his loud pink box of stale doughnuts, a cellophane package of Double Stuff Oreos, and a brown paper
lunch bag with a red Chinese symbol he couldnít read stamped on the front. He grabbed his maple bar before someone else could, then
reached inside the brown paper bag. Oh Ė fortune cookies! The last time he remembered having a fortune cookie was at his friend Louie
Hungís college grad party. They paired well with tequila.
He wondered who brought the fortune cookies and just as he thought that, Eileen tipped her head slightly to the right in a half-assed nod
and smiled at him. He knew the rules Ė no getting involved with anyone in the group, or anyone at all, until heíd earned his one-year
sobriety coin. But Eileen seemed to know him. She could look right through and down into him in a way no one else could.
He set down his maple bar and Styrofoam coffee cup and cracked opened the fortune cookie. It shattered, sending pieces all over
the unswept floor. Oh well, the mice would enjoy all the crumbs from the meeting later tonight. He pulled out the small white paper. It was folded
over, so he carefully unwrapped it. Instead of the usual six red lotto numbers on one side and a wise or funny admonition on the other,
this fortune was tiny and carefully hand-drawn in ink. It was dark in the meeting room ... he moved over to the window by the streetlight
to get a better look. It was a map of Manhattan, with a faint red circle around mid-town and a tiny red dot on the corner of West 54th
and 3rd Avenue.
From the corner of his eye, he saw Eileen smile and gently nod at him again.